A Separate Reality: High School Reunions

It was too long a trip from Floyd to Mobile to be comfortable with her going alone, though for me, everyone there would be a stranger. Maybe I shouldn’t go at all. It was her home town where we were headed for Thanksgiving weekend, her friends gathered there, their memories to be celebrated. I was just along to see that she got back safely to a time and place beyond the realm of our long relationship. And home again.

I knew it would not rest easy with me to stand outside the windows of her life, looking in on an era I did not share with her, a time when she was becoming who she would be when we met at Auburn our sophomore year and fell into something like love at twenty.

She spoke fondly and often over this past summer and fall of people who had been her friends, found all across the country, now friends again, brought together by email and conference calls. Their histories had become forever intertwined by the accidental thread of shared classrooms and stadium bleachers so long ago, and she would soon see them again after all these years.

It meant nothing to me except that it meant so much to her, and I would go and support her as best I could. Besides, I had to admit–I was curious to see what it would be like to be with a hundred or more people who were my age, who had lived through my times. There would at least be that sixties connection between us, and maybe something from that to say to them.

It didn’t make matters any easier that Ann was one a few who had initiated, organized and would be in charge of events over Friday and Saturday. For months, she had referred to the desktop computer’s email as her email and I was banished to the laptop in the next room. For months, I went to sleep at the usual time while she stayed up clicking the keys furiously, helping coordinate the music that the DJ would play, the name badges with pictures, the tour of the high school on Saturday afternoon.

For six months before the reunion, her present was immersed in the past, submerged in tiny black and white yearbook images of hairstyles from the a lost time, symbols that spoke through rose-colored memory of simpler, more hopeful, mostly-happy days of youth growing up in the Deep South.

Friday’s Meet and Greet under the vaulted atrium of the hotel lobby was an informal gathering. I consented to go down briefly to be introduced to a few of her most cherished friends. It wasn’t long before I found myself standing among the Ficus trees along the margins. I swirled the ice in my cup, conspicuously disengaged as gray-haired folk passed by for a quick look at my nametag. Was I another of their classmates grown unrecognizable over the decades?

Cameras flashed. Hands were shaken and held. Hugs lingered, but the crowd milled about as if they had all just woken from a long, long sleep, only to find themselves surrounded by half-familiar faces.

When we’ve known someone for decades, somehow we never let go seeing them the way they were back then. And for her eyes, this crowd of late fifty-somethings were still the people of their pictures in the yearbook. Their high school faces and youthful, pre-adult personalities were that night who they had been to her then.

But I could not see through to the young people at their core. For me the encounter was unsetting–to be standing in the midst of so many iterations of just how old my body really is, even while the boy in me lived on, looking out through my eyes at these old strangers.

Soon, I slipped away to our room upstairs; she didn’t even notice. I stood there in the dark quiet and watched the crowd -and my wife of thirty-six years, one of a hundred strangers mingling in the lobby four floors below. Hugs, back slaps, handshakes-like so many ants touching antennae and moving on. We’ve come so far together to be so far apart for these two days, I thought. But such is the stuff of high school reunions, of separate realities that have made us who we are, for better or for worse.

And through all this, we’ve gone back in our conversations to the pre-history of our relationship, and have had our own private reunion over Thanksgiving. We’ve found a common ground of understanding. In spite of the fact that we lived separate stories the first two decades of our lives and yes, that has made us see the world forever through different eyes, she and I can keep growing together, keep falling into something like love until we get it right.

We’ve hung wall paper together and we are still married. Now, we’ve survived her high school reunion. I think maybe we’re going to make it, after all.

Who Will Watch The Home Place

image copyright Fred First

I used this image on our Christmas Gathering invitations this year (and last, and the one before that, I think) because first of all, it is a winter scene. But then in any season, it speaks to me of refuge, of serenity, of the blessed silence and solitude of our homeplace we enjoy sharing with friends this time of year.

I pulled the image up on the screen yesterday morning and looked at it for a long while, a December meditation. Just then, from the kitchen radio, the words from Who Will Watch the Homeplace seemed aimed for the gut, and hit their mark.

Now I wander around touching each blessed thing
The chimney the tables the trees
And my memories swirl ’round me like birds on the wing
When I leave here oh who will I be

Who will watch the home place
Who will tend my hearts dear space
Who will fill my empty place
When I am gone from here

Abscission Layer

image copyright Fred First

An oak leaf will refuse to let go until December, clacking and waggling brown and brittle in the cold breeze. The serrated leaves of a smooth-boled American Beech turn almost white and become so thin and light they hang like feathers and seem to move on their own, even on a still January day. This year’s beech leaf may stay on the twig until next spring’s tiny new leaf evicts it, finally, pushing it out and away, off into space, down to the black soil among the first of the spring mustards and violets. from “A Time to Fall” in Slow Road Home.

And now, I’ve discovered there’s a word for this phenomenon: marcescence. Oooh, I like the sound of it. Here‘s what it means, and here’s how it describes the reason for what I observed and about which I waxed prosaic:

Marcescence is the retention of dead plant organs that normally are shed. It is most obvious in deciduous trees that retain leaves through the winter. Several trees normally have marcescent leaves such as oak (Quercus), beech (Fagus) and hornbeam (Carpinus). Marcescent leaves of pin oak (Quercus palustris) complete development of their abscission layer in the spring. The base of the petiole remains alive over the winter.

Retention of dead parts normally shed. I think there are some human behavior-relational metaphors hidden in this word, and I may just hold on (heh heh) to marcescence and pull it out when the time has come. Could come in handy, describing for instance, the baggage we carry with us from youth to adulthood, that hang brown and brittle well into the next year, and the next, and …

Fragments Gift Pack

Image copyright Fred First Thanks to kind reader Missy for jogging my “remembery” (as the one of our kids used to say) that I had mentioned offering a Christmas Package Deal from Goose Creek Press. And I’m prepared to do just that. So listen and listen tight, pilgrim. (Who used to say that? Hmmm?)

Usual arrangement: book $16, notecards pack of five $10 and shipping $3.

For you, a special deal (but no Ginsu knives, no matter when you order)…

One copy of Slow Road Home (first edition signed by author and inscribed upon request) plus one pack of Fragments notecards (more or less as seen in the sidebar of the blog) for only $25 delivered. What a great gift idea!

Sorry, not available by PayPal, only by check per instructions here. (Note one image in packet is different from original five images seen in sidebar.)

Wined and Dined

Saturday and Sunday past I spent four hours each day manning a mostly-invisible table that did not provide food or drink for a population of folk who surged into the winery reception room when the doors officially opened at noon armed for both and nothing else. Armed: verb intended–they didn’t have a free hand to carry a book if they’d wanted to. Even so, some books sold, several good contacts made who invited me to speak to their women’s/rotary/book club in Stuart/Danville/Raleigh et cetera. And I learned a thing or two between day one and day two about the dynamics of working with this particular setting and crowd; each of these various events I’ve been involved with since the book came along are classrooms, and I pick up pointers that I hope make me more effective in getting the word across effectively.

Saturday mistakes: no name tag. Table information too detailed and busy. Table display did not immediately link me to Floyd County. Vendor sat or stood directly behind table, intimidating some would-be customers. Nothing offered to draw people to the table, even though hundreds streamed past in line for the white wine table.

Sunday corrections: Name tag. Oh, you’re Fred First! Simplified table display, simply the poster with book title, County of origin and “memoir of place” with my picture and name. I stood back-left of the table or fully away from it, and only approached if someone picked up the book, a sample note card or a bookmark. “So are you a reader? or “Did you find one you like?” if they picked up a card. AND, due to a little problem with the packaging of the first set of 150 packs of note cards, I ended up with some free copies, so (aha moment!) I offered a free sample with envelope–a winning idea! Four times more people stopped than Saturday, and I was engaged in conversation for most of the four hours.

The cards were appreciated. Several folks asked if they were paintings or photos (which I took as a compliment.) Others asked if there were any snow pictures; or dogs; or nature close-ups. So of course, that makes me think of future projects. A couple of realtors and also some B&B folks were interested in bulk orders to use in correspondence with clients to the area. Great idea, I thought!

I go back again this coming weekend, and the old dog has learned a few tricks.

The note cards, by the way, are nicely repacked and ready for shipping. See sidebar info. Order today!

Rat Head Stew

Pardon, please, as I look back again. The anniversary of our move north from Alabama to Virginia (Dec 18, 1974) approaches. This little bit of memoir was cut and pasted from the early Fragments of August 2002. For those of you who’ve read the book, you can plug this in to those early dreams of northern migration. And THIS is the job I eagerly left behind in ‘bama. (And it follows an earlier story about my career in fire alarm sales. Maybe I’ll dig that one out sometime for you. And for me.)


So, I would not be bringing in a paycheck off my commision from sales of fire alarms to the poor parents of the potentially charred remains of little Bobby and little Susie. Dang! We were really motivated to move out of my mother’s basement to a place of our own (ultimately, this would be a squalid apartment on southside Birmingham) and it would be very helpful if Fred had a some income here, as wife was great with child.

Once again, I let my fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages, and got a bite from the University Medical Center–some place called the Department of Comparative Medicine. Whatever. I took the job as research technician and would be working with several Veterinarian PhD’s on various projects that used animal models for human disease. Kewl!

What it actually meant was that, faithful to the footsteps of those who had preceded me in my chosen field of Vertebrate Zoology, my Masters Degree qualified me to handle various kinds of animal poop while knowing the Latin name for the animal producing the deposit. Also the higher degree somehow instilled a willingness to tolerate inordinately high levels of inhaled ammonia, a by-product the breakdown of stale urine. Got to where is sorta smelled good…a true sign that I had ‘made it’ as a zoologist. Like the folks who live near and work at papermills say of that awful stench: Smells like money to me!. And all those nay-sayers who told me all I could do with a Masters in Zoology was shovel poop behind the elephants at the zoo were dead wrong! Much smaller poop. No heavy lifting!

My chief responsibility would be with a study of trace element effects on dental caries (‘cavities’) prevention. Rat mommas were fed various low to high sugar diets while nursing new litters of rat pups. New born rat pups are bright pink, half the size of your thumb, and look like writhing little plugs of old-fashioned pink bubble gum. The rat pups received various trace minerals by intubation (now that is another story) to see what effect boron, strontium and so on might have on tooth developement.

So, I mixed diets, cleaned cages, formulated and administered treatment doses, and generally tried to keep all the rat mommas and babies happy and properly fed or dosed toward the objective of the study, which was to determine how the trace minerals had impacted tooth developement while nursing on a high sugar diet of momma’s milk. And so, when the rat pups were 40 days old, tooth development had reached the desired degree of maturity.

Oops. I guess I hadn’t really thought about the next step. Somehow, little rat chums, we sort of need your teeth for assay, if you don’t mind. Now baby rats are cute in the way that all mammal-babies are: big-eyed, trusting, playful and innocent. I have to confess, after handling each of these little white-furry critters many times each day since birth, I was not comfortable during my instruction on the use of the Murine Cephalic Clevage Device. Yep, that’s right: a guillotine. I will spare you the details.

So, now I have 120 tiny rat heads, with the teeth we need to extract for the P-32 study. That requires extracting the tiny little rat molar teeth. Extraction requires heating. So, I put 120 little foil-wrapped rat heads in the autoclave, a glorified pressure cooker, for 30 minutes. Opening that autoclave when the task was done is the one thing that stands out in my mind of the 14 months I worked at this job.

I opened the autoclave slowly, to let the pressure escape gradually, and out pours a cloud of rat-head-scented steam filling the room…a vapor of all my little chums I had nurtured for 40 days, until I became their executioner. Was it too late to consider a career change, I wondered? Not a good day, folks. I was never so relieved when the job came to a stopping place and I could go home where there were no rats…heads, teeth or otherwise. I began the 2 mile walk home, trying to think about anything other than the details of my day.

Ah, finally, our apartment door appears. Ann has been home today and I am looking forward to a home-cooked meal. I will never forget opening the door and being overcome by the smell of hot, cooked meat. Ham, if I recall. It was overpowering, too much like the rat head stew I had just left; I almost chucked my cookies. I apologized from outside the door and without explaining other than to say “I’m sorry. We have to eat out tonight. Don’t ask. I will tell you about it. Some day. Maybe. Let’s go get a salad”.

So, I had my job. I was bringing home $7000 a year. Plenty. Soon after the rat head episode, our first child was born, and we knew we were destined to leave Birmingham for a place to the north, rural and beautiful, but without a clue as how to go about finding this place we dreamed of. Reading maps and Mother Earth News were fine for dreaming, but we were too conventional to just buy a VW bus and start driving, like many were doing in those days. We had to have a plan, a destination, and jobs would be nice.

It seemed like it was going to take a miracle to deliver me from a life of perpetual animal poop. So far, all roads had ended in a cul-de-sac. Ann could find work anywhere, and I could find it nowhere. Finally, in the Fall of 1974, our angel called from Virginia, and we never looked back. We felt like we had finally arrived, when, in hindsight, we had only taken our first steps toward ending up here at Goose Creek.

You know you’re in the south when…

Comfort food: those edibles that bring us to a safe, warm-fuzzy place–the gustatorial counterpart of sucking our thumbs while holding our worn flannel bankies next to our cheeks.

In the south, whatever comfort you find in your foods, they will most certainly be fried.

The smell of hot grease alone is enough to bring down a true southerner’s blood pressure a notch or two. Stick something in it while hot–anything; doesn’t much matter–and you’ve cooked up a batch of Southern Sedative. Let’s see. What might be fry-able. How ’bout pickles?

Yep. We went to two restaurants in Birmingham last weekend, and Fried Pickles were on the menu both places.

I hate to admit they were good. So good they made me want to curl up right there and take a nap.